Monthly Archives: September 2010

The known unknowns

I’m blogging from Cambridge; at the “Challenging Models in the Face of Uncertainty” conference. The focus is unknowns: be they known, unknown, guessed, forecast, imagined or experienced. I’ve heard Donald Rumsfield quoted rather a lot. There has also been  the odd reference how stupid we all are, the problems of a God’s-eye-view and, least we forget, black swans.

at conference

This morning started with a talk from Johan Rockström on his Planetary Boundaries framework. He quoted Ban Ki-moon line, that “Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss”, adding that we are accelerating as if we were on a clear highway, driving in easy daylight conditions when, really Rockström argued, we’re on a dirt track, in the middle of the night. What science can/ should do, he suggested, is turn the headlights on en route to this abyss. Rockström’s talk was very clear, with some neat little twists on diagrams and the odd metaphorical flourish.

Steve Rayner, in the audience, picked up on this and asked Rockström to reflect on his own ways of signaling authority when transforming his work into a talk for non-expert audiences. Rockström’s response was largely to list names of colleagues and more detailed work. In other words, Rockström didn’t answer Rayner’s question: he simply re-articulated the symbols of authority he’d been asked to reflect upon. Rayner wasn’t suggesting Rockström didn’t have an empirical basis to his work (or that his work was wrong), just that when communicating this work outside of science, Rockström inevitably relies upon rhetoric, and it’d be useful for him to reflect on this role as a rhetorician. But he didn’t, and this was just left as a question.

The second talk was from Melissa Leach. She emphasised the multiple narratives surrounding the sorts of issues discussed at this conference, be they connected to climate change, the spread of disease, GMOs, ash-clouds, nanotechnology, or some other novel technology. She argued that we have a tendency to close down or re-articulate narratives of ignorance, ambiguity, uncertainty and surprise and instead move to ones of “risk”. The sense of control and order risk-framed narratives provide is sometimes very helpful, but it can also be deluded, and shut down possible pathways to useful action. Leach argued that we must open up politics to pay due attention to multiple narratives; to question dominance and authority, to increase the ideas and evidence available to us.

Ok, but how do you do this? For example, we might argue that the internet provides a great opportunity for the presentation of such a multiplicity of narratives and, moreover, an opportunity for such narratives to productively learn from/ change each other. At times it does just that. And yet, science blogging can also be deeply tribal, climate blogging especially so (and, I’d argue, considering its history, understandably so).

This evening, was a public lecture from Lord Krebs, on the complex interface between evidence, policy-making and uncertainty. He outlined three key tensions in this interface, each illustrated with examples. 1) Scientists disagree with each other, e.g. over bystander effect and pesticides. 2) Scientists sometimes just don’t know, even when they develop elaborate experiments to find out, e.g. with badger culling. 3) Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the science says, the politicians will be swayed by other issues, e.g. alcohol. I enjoyed Krebs’ talk. He had some really neat examples and there were some good discussion in the Q&A. Still, I left uninspired and unenlightened.

Lord Krebs talks badgers

Today, I’ve heard a lot of very old and (to me at least) very familiar talk about issues in science communication. I’ve seen a bit of new data and collected some new jargon, but I’m yet to come across any new ideas. I’ve been told that people believe what they want to believe, that science and the perception of it is culturally embedded, that the so-called experts are often as misleading and as likely to mislead as the so-called public, that science and politics make uneasy bedfellows and, of course, that it’s all terribly, terribly complicated.

But I knew that. I knew that ten years ago. I want something new.

Maybe I’m being unfair on this conference. I admit I’m tired and in need of a holiday. Also,  interdisciplinary events are always very difficult to pull off, and it is only half way through.

Maybe tomorrow will surprise me.

My favourite scientist

I’m not really someone who does “favourites”. When people ask my favourite colour, favourite t-shirt, or favourite food I tend to roll my eyes and point out that I’m not seven. But I do have a favourite scientist. His name is Frank Oppenheimer.

This is a bit embarrassing because, as a trained historian of science, I really should be above a “great man” view of our past. I know science doesn’t progress genius by genius. I know any greatness of science is (a) up for debate and (b) tends to come from long, iterative work done by largely anonymous groups, not starry individuals. I have to admit to finding the veneration of Darwin last year a bit weird. But I’ve thought Frank Oppenheimer was amazing ever since, as an undergraduate, I stumbled across a dusty book about him at the edge of the Science Museum library.

Really short version: Frank was J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s little brother. Like his brother, Frank was also a physicist and also worked on the Manhattan Project. Post-war, he was blackballed as a communist so went off to run a cattle ranch, later becoming a teacher before re-joining academia. After a brief sabbatical at UCL he dropped university life again and moved to San Fransisco to found the Exploratorium (now a model for science museums all over the world).

Short version: Go read my second piece for the Guardian science blog festival.

Medium-long version: Have a play at the Exploratorium’s history site.

Long version: Get hold of a copy of  KC Cole’s biography.

Let’s not build heroes here. Frank Oppenheimer didn’t save the world. In fact, we might even say that as someone involved in the Manhattan Project, he played a small part in the closest we’ve come to destroying it. It’s also worth emphasising that the guy wasn’t a saint, and that it’s not like the Exploratorium is the definitive word on how to do science education (personally, I love it, but I appreciate I’m a kinesthetic learner who likes physics). Plus, let’s not forget, he was a rich, white man of the 20th century who’s Dad left him a Van Gough. Still, I think he’s a fascinating chap.

Every now and again I pop into the Science Museum’s mini-Exploratorium, Launch Pad. I build an arch bridge. I mess about with some bubble mix. I remember all the similar exhibits I’ve played with in similar museums all over the world. And I remember that I have a favourite scientist. His name was Frank Oppenheimer.

The discipline of science communication

The latest edition of the Journal of Science Communication is up, and I’m in it.

I was asked to discuss the question ‘does science communication deserve special attention as an academic discipline?’ Read my contribution, and you’ll see I don’t really answer the question. Or rather I answer with a simple negative and then, um… spin that out for a few pages with a long list of references. Susanna Hornig Priest’s contribution is much better. Read that instead.

Something Hornig Priest refers to is the difference between inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary work (or, the difference between connecting disciplines and mixing them). I think this sort of awareness of discipline is something shared by everyone involved in science communication. As I argue in my contribution, for me science communication is less a community of researchers, and more a space where we deal with the fact such communities of research exist. It is a consequence of the spaces left between fragmented expertise, a weird by-product of modernity. So, I refused to answer JCom’s question properly not just out of petulance, but because I feel more like someone who works in the spaces between academic disciplines than one desiring of building their own.

This middle ground is not always an easy place to reside, but an awareness of this unease is part of how I think science communication scholars can be useful; as we examine, reflect, debate and help others manage the clashes between communities of knowledge. As such, I think it necessarily involves a fair bit of both multi and inter-disciplinary work, as well as a strong awareness (I’d personally add, involvement) with practitioners and audiences. This does also mean you spend most of your life ignorant of most of what you are looking at. You feel constantly stupid (but in exchange you get to see loads of different amazing things).

It’s not for everyone and nor should it be, but it’s where I work.

Miracle Mineral Solution

If you keep an eye on the UK skeptic media you will have probably already heard the story of 15 year old Rhys Morgan and Miracle Mineral Solution (“Bleachgate”). If not, let me share it with you.

Crohn’s disease is horrible. Being a teenager is horrible. Have a read through The National Association for Colitis and Crohn’s Disease pages for 16-29 year olds to get an idea of what it’s like when both happen at once. Welsh teenager Rhys Morgan was diagnosed with Crohn’s a few months ago. He did what a lot of people with similar conditions do and joined some online support groups.

It’s probably worth repeating that Crohn’s is horrible. I should also stress that it’s a complex and unpredictable condition, the details of which medical science is still unraveling. Such support groups are not only an emotional support, but can be great for sharing information, knowledge and experience. They can also be ways of spreading things that aren’t so helpful, and they can emotionally difficult places too (I can recommend this book for some discussion of issues surrounding this).

Rhys was sceptical of one of the treatment being pushed on a forum, something called “Miracle Mineral Solution”. Very sensibly he did a bit of digging, and sound found that the FDA describes it as industrial bleach. Rhys shared his concerns with the forum, and a whole story of internet community nastiness followed. Watch Rhys’ videoblog for the full story, as he tells it himself so well (or see transcript on his blog).

When the story first broke about a month ago, it was covered extensively by skeptics bloggers, but no where else much. This week, there was an overview of the story in the Guardian, via a column by skeptic-blogger Martin Robbins. It’s great that Martin’s connection there gets the story into such a high profile site (and, as Paul Bradshaw says, it’d be good if lots of people link to Robbins’ piece with the words Miracle Mineral Solution…). Still, I’d have loved to see it covered by, for example, reporters on education or health beats too. Not just for the extension of coverage, but because I think it’s worth reflecting on the story from more than just a skeptic perspective.

There has been a move in recent years to make UK science education more about public engagement, designing curricula that not only train the next generation of scientists, but equip young people to use and critique claims to scientific authority as part of their everyday lives (see this GCSE for example). However, a lot of this sort of work seems to see the process as preparation for later life, as if active engagement is something adults too whereas kids are simply passive. Similarly, I’ve heard activists in young peoples’ health complain that under 18s are too often seen as “human becomings” rather than “human beings” when it comes to medicine; that teens are simply taught how to prepare for a healthy adult lives as if they have little role in their current existence.

I can see why people have been celebrating and supporting Rhys on this issue, but he’s not the only teenager to take such a sensible and active role when it comes to their health (e.g. the trustee of Body and Soul featured in this podcast). I suspect a lot of young people hope to get the best possible information about health; that they will spend time looking for such information and will be sceptical about what they find. Also that the care that others get good information too, and so share it about, and that they will get into fights with other young people and adults while they do so.

That’s why, for me the tale of Rhys Morgan and Miracle Mineral Solution isn’t just a story for or about skeptics. It’s a genuinely interesting, concerning and illuminating story of inter-generational health communication in a digital age, and one I’d have love to see talked about more.

EDIT: 19/9/10 changed reference to Martin’s piece in Guardian which was initially down as a blogpost rather than a column. See my comment on Paul’s blogpost for context. Also, look – the story has been picked up by a Kenyan newspaper and on the PLoS blogs.

On laughter and ridicule

I have a post about science and humour as part of the the Guardian’s science blogging festival. Go read, and have a look at some of the other blogposts while you are there.

The interactions between science and comedy is something I’ve thought about quite a bit. I did some work on humour in popular science discourse as part of my PhD. I’ve given papers about it at the LSE and University of Manchester. Somewhere on my hard-drive have a draft journal article (email me at college if you’re interested in the bibliography).

As I say in the Guardian post, I think we need to remember the ways in which humour reflects communities of shared understanding. A premise of a joke could be thought of as the basis of a question: do you understand it, do you agree with it? If so, laugh. If not, you scowl/ are left confused. The processes of making, sharing and accepting jokes is both divisive and inclusive, bringing people together as well as demonstrating where they don’t connect. I don’t think we can escape this; we just need to be aware of it.

On this topic, I can recommend the first chapter of Giselinde Kuipers’ book (pdf). The whole book is good, but that’s the free bit. Also, this study of jokes told amongst mathematicians (pdf) makes a great example of jokes within a science-ish community.

The piece is also an invitation  to take a critical approach to humour. To stand up proudly sour-faced in front of a joke you disagree with. In this I am partly following Micheal Billig’s approach to humour. Billig argues we must go against an unthinking celebration of humour: “The critic has to examine the idea that the world might be changed by warm-heartedness, lots of hugging and a little more laughter” (Billig, 2004: 11). In doing so, “We might appear anti-humour, but there are worse crimes” (Billig, 2004: 9). It’s a  bit like a call to remain sceptical of humour. Personally I think an anti-humour approach is slightly grim, I’d rather celebrate jokes I like than just beat down the ones I don’t, which is why I included (admittedly awful) jokes in that post, and why I asked for examples of favourite jokes at the end. But I do also think we should retain some scepticism over comedy.

Jokes are a way of expressing opinion, and we don’t all agree on everything. A good laugh can be brilliant. So can a clever joke. It can make you happy and it can make you think. It can also be deeply offensive and make you cry. Just because it’s a joke doesn’t excuse the latter two reactions.

… and yes I have seen this xkcd and I do think it’s funny (because I recognise it), but I’m really not saying this to be superior. I hope that’s clear because the main reason I care about this issue is that I’d love an escape from one-upmanship when it comes to public debate about science and technology.

Scientists and the vote

Today at Science Online London I spoke in a session about”The Science Vote” alongside Evan Harris and Imran Khan.

First a bit of background on this Science Vote thing (the content my talk is under the photo). I’m used having to sneak references to science policy in the back of my syllabi. This year, I was slightly taken aback to find undergraduates knocking on my office door asking for more lectures on science policy. They aren’t the only ones interested in the topic. Maybe it won’t last, but at the moment, talking about “policy” seems to be the hot new thing in UK science.

I find this weird. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s not surprising though; the background is easy to trace.  Science-themed activism surrounding “bad science bloggers” and the developing UK skeptics scene is worth a mention, as well as concerns over cuts in public funding. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that it is the possibility of cuts that truly makes scientists get political, and perhaps the true action is yet to be seen. Still, we can also add frustrations over libel law, the school curriculum, climategate, homeopathy, David Nutt, or any mixture of these issues (and more) under the umbrella of Science Vote issues.

There was also clearly a concerted effort to build a Science Vote network. In November, New Scientist launched its S-word blog, the “S” being the science they feel is too often unmentionable in UK politics. The following month, the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) set up a Science Vote blog. As the pre-election fervor heated up, there were a series of pre-election debates held between the three major science spokespeople (video of Royal Society for Chemistry’s one). Both the Guardian and the Times produced extensive science-themed election coverage. The movement grew, and I got used to seeing #scivote tag flow across twitter as people shared links.

Science in Power

My Science Online talk used the Science Vote campaign to think about the way a sort “brand” of science works in scientific campaigning and, more broadly, the advantages and disadvantages of talking to small niche groups. (note: by “brand” I really mean a symbolic impression of cohesion over what science equates to. I won’t go into theories of branding here, but this is an interesting book)

It is sometimes said that social media campaigns are merely talking to themselves. Were #scivote twitter-ers simply ranting in small self-curated bubbles of agreement?

Maybe, but it’s wrong to think niche (even exclusive) groups are always a bad thing. I would argue against simple pessimistic talk of echochambers. I think there is a role for small communities of agreement in political campaigning, they can act as seeds for larger movements Moreover, new media opens up possibilities for developing them. Indeed, to complain that bloggers, facebook users, tweeters et al are talking to limited audiences is, perhaps, to fall into a trap of attempting to ape the (outdated?) desires of mainstream media: that of aiming for a mass audience. The odd ambitious blogger may want to become a household name, but for many it is simply about meaning a lot to a few, and being able to reach and connect small specialist audiences (we might talk about the long tail if you want to use new media jargon).

I would argue that precisely because #scivote was a hashtag, it had a power to connect. It works as a link, clicking on it connected people to others who are using it. Yes, this was a matter of people who largely agreed with each other, but it helped connect individual grumbles to build a larger (albeit still small) movement. I soon noticed that if I used the hashtag during the election I’d get a spate of new followers: people were clearly tracking it. It allowed nascent on and off-line political mumblings to feel less isolated, it connected people to events, information, ideas, debates and, quite simply, other people. It let individuals develop knowledge and interest and fostered community. Events such as the RSC one helped demonstrate the power and number of science-interested voters, and allowed nascent online political mumblings feel a sense of real-space community. The Science Vote campaign,  was, let’s face it, an extension of quite Westminster-based lobbying. Groups like CaSE wanted to show that there was a constituency that cared about these issues.

We should also be careful of assuming too much agreement within the Science Vote campaign. For me, the word science is a large part of the problem. It’s a shorthand. A necessary and useful one, but a gloss over the messy reality nonetheless. Like “the public”, “child” or “the meaning of life”, the word “science” often comes with scare-quotes, spoken in a tone of mock-drama because, we know what a fudge it is. (for an academic version of those last two sentences, try this book). It is worth remembering that the so-called Science Vote was, in many respects, an odd coalition of people and worries that just happened to collect together in UK science around this particular time.

My unease over a simplistic application of “brand science” was triggered especially strongly by The Times’ piece on candidates’ backgrounds and labelling “science friendly” (to their credit, the Times did add good bit of context in a postscript). The Guardian’s Litmus Test project maybe took a broader view of science, but it was still defined science in its own way, arguably somewhat skewed to the worries of the skeptics movement. Times Higher highlighted issues surrounding young and women researchers. Science, writing after the polls had closed, memorably brought the badgers. Some people found the badgers a bit weird, and their incredulity fueled a fair bit of post-election humour based upon the passing around of dancing badger cartoons. However, to others, it is a major issue.

Personally, I’m quite comfortable with such a diversity of ideas of what a science vote might equate to. Everyone has their own definition of science. That’s my point: there is no single idea or experience of science. Rather, it is multiple and differing, and to pretend otherwise is to suggest a coherence which personally I just don’t see in the UK science “community”. Indeed, there are times when I wonder if “coalition” not “community” is the word.

Perhaps the biggest problem with “brand science” is that it is too often an exclusive term, used to articulate the community’s boundaries to note who doesn’t belong, what can’t be called “scientific”. This sense of exclusivity might be useful to those working in “anti-quack” campaigns. It can also make it an appealing brand to people outside as well as helping foster a sense of community within in (i.e. a form of bonding). But, at the same time, I worry puts off those who don’t happen to feel a strong everyday affinity to science.

Too much of the Science Vote activity of the pre-election period was, for me, characterised by tribalism. Identifying “science friendly” MPs or labelling policy “anti science” felt like a simplistic game of goodies and baddies which belies the subtitles of science in British society. People are rarely simplistic enough to be “friends” or “enemies” of the whole of science. Rather, this big thing we call science hangs over all of us in a range of places and ways.

If science is to have a long-lasting and productive role in politics, the science lobby must be careful in their use of the “S” word and instead accommodate a diversity of interests, actors and ideas and demonstrate how specific areas of expertise are meaningful to British society at large. I think the Science Vote campaign had an impact on the politicisation of UK science (or at least it helped foster and articular an already murmuring politicisation). However,  looking forward, it should be wary of letting a glossy banner of “science” obscure the diversity of people and detail of policies involved. It is often the specifics of science policy that matter. Specifics in all their complex diversity. Post election, it is time to go to show what the many different areas of science can mean to a broad range of people, across UK society.

At the end of the Q&A in the session, Imran made an interesting analogy between the Science Vote and the so-called “Pink Vote” or “Grey Vote”. There is no central orgainsing committee for these, and they are supposed to reflect huge and diverse communities who may well disagree with each other about the most effective way to deal with, respectively, gay or mature peoples’ votes (or with being described as either “pink” or “grey” for that matter). Yet the use of these terms reflect politicians at least thinking about taking these groups more seriously. Scientists who want a stronger voice might want to think about these other identity based political movements.

Taking science journalism “upstream”

row of boatsToday I spoke at Science Online London as part of a plenary panel session curated by David Dobbs and also featuring Martin Robbins and Ed Yong on “Rebooting” (aka the future of) science journalism. This is the typed-up version of my talk, along with links and extra bits of context.

As the academic on the panel (not to mention the only one that isn’t, shhhh, in any way a journalist) I thought I’d focus on an idea: an invite to take things “upstream”.

That probably sounds dirtier than it should.

The term “upstream” is (a) a metaphor and (b) jargon. Both of which I apologise for. The concept has been incredibly influential in the engagement end of science communication work. Science communicators use it all the time, they even tell each other off when they’re “not upstream enough”. But has never really carried through to journalism.

In essence, it’s an argument for showing more of science in the making, not just waiting for publication of “ready-made” peer-reviewed papers.

Imagine science as a river.  Upstream, we have the early stages of communication about some area of science: meetings, literature reviews or general lab gossip. Gradually these ideas are worked through, and the communicative output flows downstream towards the peer-reviewed and published journal article and perhaps, via a press release and maybe even a press conference, some mass media reporting. Let’s not get too carried away with this metaphor though, or we’ll just end up with boring stories about scientists going rafting (it also relies on what is, arguably, an over-linear model of science, but that’s a whole other argument).

The term “upstream engagement” has various antecedents, but really stems from a (2004) report from think-tank Demos, See Through Science, by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis. They argued that science communication initiatives had become over-dominated by questions of risk, which they felt, was too late in the process. The March 2006 POST note (pdf) provides a good example of the difference between early and late (upstream and downstream) engagement, drawing on reactions to GMOs. It refers to a 1994 consensus conference funded by the BBSRC and held at the Science Museum anticipated issues surrounding genetic modification (GM) of plants and involved publics at an early stage. In comparison, they argue that the 2003 GM Nation project, although government-funded and promised to take up recommendations, it was “too little, too late” (POST, 2006: 2). GM Nation asked people to respond to what had been delivered to them, whereas the 1994 event had given people access and, simply, insight into what might be delivered.

Wilsdon and Willis were heavily influenced by Stephen Hilgartner’s (2000) book about US science policy, Science on Stage, and echoing this they have a lot of fun with theatrical metaphors:

The task of upstream engagement is to remove some of the structures that divide the back-stage from the front-stage. It seeks to make visible the invisible, to expose to public scrutiny the values, visions and assumptions that usually lie hidden. In the theatre of science and technology, the time has come to dismantle the proscenium arch and begin performing in the round (Wilsdon & Willis, 2004: 24)

I should note, the idea has its critics, e.g. Dick Taverne’s letter to Nature or, somewhat more thoughtfully, William Cullerne Bown. Still, these are exceptions. Listening to some of David Willetts’ statements on public engagement, I suspect he is a fan of working upstream (or is at least has been briefed by someone who read that POSTnote).

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that journalists haven’t really taken it up though. The idea of upstream engagement is to fix problems in the relationships between science and society. The government like this, clearly, so write POSTnotes and fund things like ScienceWise, but it’s not the business of journalism to deal with it. They just want to sell papers. They have their own rules to play with (c.f. Andy Williams’ reference to news values in the recent Times Higher piece on science writing).

But I think upstream science journalism offers something sell-able. It’s based on theatre after all. It swaps that cliché of “scientists have found” for “scientists are doing”. It focuses on “scientists find interesting”, “scientists wonder” or “scientists are excited by”. Actually, I’d hope it looses the sloppy generalisation of “scientists” and instead introduce researchers with rather less anonymity. That’s part of the point. It lets the audience look science right in the eye and see it in all its glory (beauty and wonder; warts and all).

I suspect people are waiting to respond with the criticism that it is irresponsible to report work that isn’t peer-reviewed (ooo and here it ista Evan).  Although I have sympathy this issue, I’d also say it’s a lazy stick with which beat science journalists with, not to mention somewhat supportive of the publishing industry. But upstream science journalism can be done responsibly, and without tripping over patents or embargoes. Remember, the focus is more on the people, their ideas, worries and enthusiasms, not the results. Moreover, I  still want a place for “downstream” science reporting. The publication of a major paper is a news event worth covering. I’m not dismissing a creative, articulate, probing and context-bringing write-up of peer-reviewed research in the slightest. Done well, it can be a beautiful and important thing. There is also, I think, a lot to be said for what we might call “really, really far downstream” reporting: maybe we need more about what happens to science after publication. Science journalism should follow scientists all the way through society (yes, that is a Latour reference and yes I have read Amsterdamska’s review).

I also think science journalism would be served well by taking itself upstream, not only working to show how science is made, but making its own workings more visible too. Upstream engagement was, after all, designed to deal with a crisis in trust. Perhaps a bit more upstream communication would help  science journalists to gain trust from their audiences, and from the scientific community. This would include openness, but also involving their audiences (upstream, and meaningfully, not only letting them comment at the end of the process).

I don’t think this call to move upstream offers something drastically new. I use it as a nice phrase to, I hope, encourage and focus attention in this area. I think it is already being done, and new media is making more feasible (and showing there is a market for). As Vincent Kiernan argued during last year’s WCSJ’s fight over embargoes, new media mitigates against what John Rennie called “Big paper of the week syndrome”, the reliance on cycles of “pseudo-news” about what happens to have been published in one of the larger journals (see also the embargowatch blog for fascinating tracking of these tensions).

My favourite example has to be this video of the ICHEP conference hosted on the Guardian. I’ve also noticed recently that Times health correspondent David Rose uses twitter not just to post links to finished pieces, but as news comes in. It’s also worth mentioning the interactive way Mark Henderson has used his twitter account in conjunction with the Times’ Eureka blog (especially during the election), as well as others who favour the “DVD extras” approach to blogging alongside traditional journalism. Further, the Guardian’s science storytracker gives insight into the evolution of a story, and it was interesting to see the the Guardian’s health team use their Datastore during the death rates investigation. In terms of “really far downstream” (in a good way) science journalism, I think Gaia Vince’s blog is a nice example.

This death rates points us towards a possible pitfall: Ben Goldacre’s criticism of their stats, and more to the point, that such open data needs to come with “open methodology” too. As I said at the time, however, precisely because it is so complex, an approach which is iteratively discursive (rather than momentarily confrontational) is perhaps the most likely to succeed. There are also, in the business of journalism, matters of competition to be remembered: the worry of being scooped (perhaps beautifully demonstrated by this story). As with be careful of embargoes and patents (competition issues in science), I think it’s a matter of being careful, being clever and being imaginative. Maybe the tweeting of political journalists during the election is a nice example?

This sort of upstream work can be pretty niche. A nice example of that being exchange between Evan Harris and Jon Butterworth over “if” you wanted to know about supersymmetry. But that’s why it can work online, because you can find those niche markets (e.g. first comment on Jon’s post). We might similarly argue that it doesn’t provide news, but again the web might be of here, as people come to content at different times and through a range of routes: I think blogging has already started to blur boundaries between feature and news piece when it comes to science writing.

The niche point does, however, point us towards the best argument against upstream science journalism: that it’d would be boring. Maybe that scientists go rafting feature was a bit dull. But people write dull pieces based on research papers all the time. If a science journalist thinks scientists at work is boring, then I think they are in the wrong job. Similarly, if they think the ideas and knowledge of their readers is boring, I suspect they’re increasingly find they are in the wrong job.

I don’t think moving science journalism upstream will solve all its problems. Neither do I think the concept offers something drastically new: it’s already happening. Still, thinking about upstream as a one of the many possible new forms for science journalism might focus attention in a fruitful direction. Or maybe it’s a ridiculous mis-application of what is a slightly aging and rather self-indulgent idea in the first place. Tell me your thoughts.

EDIT (September 2010): You can see a video of the session.

EDIT (March 2011): I have been amazed by the way the online science writing community have taken to this – e.g. a mention in David Rowan’s speech on How to Save Science Journalism and, especially, the the newly launched PLoS blog Science Upstream.